Portable Bluetooth speakers are a dime a dozen these days – Amazon lists more than 37,000 of them! Though our shootout should help narrow the choice if you’re in the market for one. But portable AirPlay speakers are rather rarer, pretty ones even rarer and the Sugr Cube goes one step further in its bid to stand out from the crowd: it offers gesture-based control.
You tap the top of the speaker to pause/play, tilt it 45 degrees left to return to the previous track or 45 degrees left to skip to the next.
When I saw this on our sister site 9to5Toys, I wondered whether this would be a gimmick that you use a few times, or a genuinely useful form of control. There was only one way to find out, so I took delivery of one earlier this month to put it to the test …
Look & feel
Once upon a time, there was a simple rule for selling premium products: you had to feel the quality from the moment you first set eyes on the box. The packaging, as much as the contents, had to sell you on the quality.
With today’s environmental concerns, brands have to strike a balance. The packaging still has to convey quality, but without seeming needlessly wasteful. Sugr has done well here. First impressions on seeing and opening the black cardboard box are of something stylish, while at the same time the materials are relatively basic.
A Nietzsche quote under the lid forms the finishing touch.
I’m always a sucker for a nice chunk of wood, and the Sugr Cube likewise made a good first impression. It’s available in Cherry and Maple, and the unit I tested was the Cherry version. It looks good. It has a very smooth matte varnish that makes it silky to the touch.
It’s not quite a cube. At a little over 4 inches in each dimension, it’s very slightly deeper than the height and width.
There is a single visible control, a combined volume and on/off switch at the rear. A green LED serves as a combined power and volume position indicator. It’s very attractive.
I describe it as an AirPlay speaker, as that’s the use most here would put it to, but that description does it something of a disservice. The app controlling the speaker actually offers a range of music service. These are:
- Cube Music, which imports from iTunes into its own 4GB internal flash storage
- Pandora Radio
- Radio, offering access to a small-ish but well-selected range of radio stations
- Relax Radio, offering a small choice of natural sounds designed to be relaxing
But from an Apple device, you can use it for any app that supports AirPlay. This of course includes iTunes on the Mac and Music on iOS devices, allowing it to be used for Apple Music.
I talk about the gesture controls below.
When you switch on the speaker, it immediately starts playing Relax Radio. This is my single biggest complaint about it. A short chime to tell you it’s on would be great, but immediately – and always – playing the sound of waves on the shore meant that after the first few times using it, that sound was associated with anything but relaxation!
You need to download the app to your iOS device to configure it. To do this, you open the app, tap the ‘I have Cube’ button, enter your Wi-Fi router password when prompted and then tap the ‘Connect’ button. The app prompts you to hold the phone speaker close to the Cube. The app chirps the encoded password in audio form, and the speaker pairs over Wi-Fi. You only have to do this once.
After that, you just open the Music app and connect to it as an AirPlay device in the usual way: flick up the Control Center, tap the AirPlay icon and select the Cube.
I did discover one snag during this process: the Cube only supports 2.4GHz Wi-Fi. I usually run everything on 5Ghz. With a Time Capsule, as with many routers, this isn’t a big deal as the router simultaneously broadcasts on both frequencies, but it did mean I had to connect my iPhone to the 2.4GHz version and tell it to forget the 5Ghz network.
For such a compact speaker, both volume and sound quality are impressive. Obviously you’re never going to get fantastic bass out of anything this small, but it did a lot better than I expected. My main audio kit is a mix of B&O and B&W, and it was clear it was never going to compete on those terms. Also, unless you buy two of them and network them together, it’s only a mono speaker.
But in portable speaker rankings, it’s definitely one of the best I’ve tried. So long as you’re not expecting it to replace your hifi system, I don’t think anyone short of a full-on audiophile would be disappointed. (Someone posted rather a lovely quote to the hi-res audio story a couple of days ago: a music lover uses their sound system to listen to music; an audiophile uses music to listen to their sound system. I have mildly expensive taste in hifi, but am definitely a music lover rather than an audiophile.)
I’ve heard some people describe the Sugr Cube’s volume as room-filling. That is definitely an exaggeration, but it does pump out 90dB at one metre, which is quite an achievement from something just four inches square! It also manages this without distortion.
The speaker did cut out several times in use. Once it completely dropped off AirPlay, and other times it paused or skipped. Unfortunately, this seems to just be part of the territory with AirPlay – a topic I’ve ranted about at some length. However, while it’s always hard to quantify these things, my impression was that the Sugr Cube cut out a little more frequently than most AirPlay devices.
Which brings us to the question I asked at the beginning: what about the gesture control? Pointless gimmick, or genuinely useful?
I must confess that while I was intrigued, I was fairly confident I’d end up dismissing it as a novelty feature. After all, if I’m playing music from my phone – the most likely use for a portable speaker – my phone is probably to hand, and if not there’s the remote app on my Watch. How useful is it really to play/pause by tapping the top of the speaker, and to change track by tilting it left or right?
To my surprise, the answer turned out to be ‘actually, it’s rather convenient.’ Even on my desk, with my phone stood in its dock within easy reach, it actually proved less fiddly to simply tap or tip the speaker than touching the on-screen controls in the Music app. It’s just like listening through headphones, where the inline control is more convenient than the phone.
Gesture control is by no means a must-have feature, but it is a genuinely useful one – a nice-to-have.
Portability & battery life
As an AirPlay rather than Bluetooth speaker, this is more likely to be used as a flexible speaker you can move from room to room at home, rather than something you’re going to take to a social gathering elsewhere. For this kind of usage, it’s extremely easy to pick up and take to another room.
It has the type of look that works with pretty much any decor, so if you want to use it semi-permanently – say putting it in a home office or study while working and then moving to a bedroom on the evening – it’s not going to look out of place.
Sugr claims a battery life of 24 hours. I haven’t yet used it enough to put this to the test, but with a 6000mAH battery in there, that seems a reasonable claim. Certainly I’ve used it for 10-12 hours on a single charge and it’s still showing as green.
At $229, the Sugr Cube is definitely at the premium end of the portable speaker market, but it’s not a crazy price. There are Bluetooth speakers out there at a similar price, and in AirPlay terms it’s actually at the cheaper end. Given the great looks, decent sound and claimed 24-hour battery life (which I didn’t hit, but certainly it would get you through even a long music session), I would say it’s reasonable value for money.
I am slightly concerned about the fact that the drop-outs seemed a little more frequent than other AirPlay devices, but it is – as I say – hard to be sure about this. I wouldn’t let this put you off: buy from a retailer with a decent returns policy and you can judge for yourself.
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